Tate Taylor’s Oscar-baiting The Help (2011) – starring Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer – is an incredibly well-crafted film with an impressive cast, that not only tells a story of racial injustice, but also of the gender inequality of the 1950s. The film has its moments of twee sentimentalism, but also resonates with a clear sense of poignancy, and is told in an accessible and hugely pleasurable way.
Set in 1950s America, the story revolves around Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Stone) who wishes to become a writer, as opposed to the girls she grew up with who all married and became housewives. After witnessing the treatment of African American maids by local white families, Skeeter decides to write a book chronicling the day-to-day treatment of the maids with the help of Aibileen Clark (Davis).
The Help is peppered with characters that are suitably awful yet understandable, with others delightfully wise and comforting in a familial way. At times the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ individuals fall into stereotypes, particularly Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook (who is a little too evil). The other problem with the movie is the dialogue of the black characters, and it sometimes feels that the film was not only set in the 1950s, but was made in it.
The central power The Help is the interweaving of both race and gender politics throughout. Taylor’s film highlights the struggle of women (at least those who cared) whether they were black or white, born into a privileged family or a poor one, because the reality was that women in the 1950s had little options up until the cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s. This is where the strength of the film lies – in telling stories and vocalising a worthy plight.
Ultimately, The Help is a flawed period piece but one that is also hugely accessible, enjoyable and genuinely funny. Expect Oscar nods aplenty at next year’s Academy Awards.